When done properly, this is still one of the most powerful upper body exercises we have.
When you think about a classic upper body exercise, what pops in your head?
For most people, it’s usually the bench press.
But, the barbell overhead press is an incredible demonstration of strength, motor control, and mobility.
And, I would argue, it’s much more valuable than the bench press as a total body integration of strength and power.
I’ll tell you why in this article.
It’s really a shame that the exercise has been on a downward trend, probably since the 1972 Olympics officially eliminated the Clean and Press from competition.
The military press has always been a classic lift and, to be honest, I never tapped into the principles I’ll share with you now.
Here’s what’s actually really surprising about the barbell press.
It seems simple.
You pick up the barbell and press it overhead.
The truth is, it’s very technically demanding, especially as you add a load to the bar.
It’s also incredibly humbling.
If you’re not doing this lift, try it and see for yourself.
But, ONLY after you read these tips.
I’ve heard people say it’s not good for the shoulders.
Well, it isn’t good for your shoulders, if you don’t press properly with the techniques I review here.
Here are a few important tips to maximize your performance with the barbell military press.
The “military press,” by the way, refers to pressing in a strict technique, hence the name “military.”
Let’s start with…
When you grab the bar in your set up, grip the bar firmly to increase muscular tension in the arms and upper body.
Be sure to wrap your thumbs around the bar (do not use a thumbless grip) and make sure the bar is secure in your hand.
A strong, firm grip will help to increase your pressing power by increasing upper body muscular tension and put you in a much more stable position to press from.
Squeeze the bar hard as you get ready to press.
One way to do this is to think about “breaking the bar.”
Grip the bar and think about bending it with your strong grip.
This cue can make a huge difference, trust me.
Keep your forearms vertical as you get in position to press the bar.
This puts the bar in the “rack” position, which is where the bar sits on the anterior deltoids and at the clavicle or slightly above.
The vertical position of the forearms should place your hands about shoulder width apart or just slightly outside.
The forearm position sets up for a strong over head press in a safe, efficient plane of motion, keeping the bar close to your body as you elevate the bar.
It’s very important to set up and maintain the vertical forearm position for an effective press.
Keep this in mind.
As I mentioned with the grip, which will help to increase upper body tension, think about keeping tight from your feet all the way through the spine.
Root your feet in the ground and think about “spreading the floor” with your feet.
I should mention here, you should keep the feet about shoulder width apart and keep the feet pointing straight ahead.
Now, think about “spreading the floor” with your feet.
This will increase the tension in your lower body for strength and stability.
Also, keep your glutes tight and abs tense before your press.
Basically, everything is tight in your body before you press, from your feet through your hips and spine and up to your shoulders and grip.
The full body tension applied here will be critical to a strong, stable overhead press.
There’s a saying “you can’t shoot a cannon from a canoe.”
Now, do you understand why getting tight and stable is important?
If you’re an experienced lifter, take a breath and hold it for the ascent of the barbell press.
Once overhead, let out your breath and inhale on the way down (or take a breath at the top to stabilize, hold your breath again, then lower the bar to the start position).
The key is to know that the breath holding (or Valsalva maneuver) is important for a safe, strong press.
Now, you have to breathe, of course, so make sure to exhale and inhale appropriately, as I’ve described here.
But, if you’re a novice, you should definitely consider a slightly different approach to breathing until you’re accustomed to the Valsalva.
In this case, you should take a deep breath and exhale as you drive the bar up.
This is not a bad alternative anyway, and it’s a better breathing pattern if you’re not used to the breath holding technique of the Valsalva.
And, there is some recent data that supports that the Valsalva is a more appropriate technique for the experienced lifter, as compared to the novice.
Understand that breathing is a very critical piece in successful lifting, not just with the barbell press, but in ALL exercises.
Proper breathing is power.
BAR POSITION AT THE TOP
As the bar is elevated overhead, the finish position is with arms fully locked out overhead and the bar should be positioned directly over your shoulder joints (the glenohumoral joints).
If observing someone press from the side view, the bar should be directly over the shoulder joints and there should be a vertical line from the middle of the foot, through the shoulders, and up to the bar overhead with the arms fully extended.
Common faults would be to finish with the bar positioned more anteriorly (more to the front) or not completing a full lockout of the elbows.
This overhead position allows for great shoulder and thoracic mobility, as well as superior strength with a heavy load.
One other thing I should mention here is to keep the bar close to your body, as I already mentioned.
The vertical forearm will keep the bar close to your body for an efficient bar path on the drive up (and back down).
As you can see, the barbell military press is so much more that just an effective shoulder exercise.
It’s way more than that.
The best way to start is to practice these tips with an unloaded bar (or even a dowel rod or stick).
An empty bar is a great way to get a feel with the position and motion of the overhead press and to build a groove and a pattern.
Practice a few sets of 5 reps and get the pattern and these techniques dialed in before you start to load the bar.
It’s just like other lifts, first learn the movement, then safely add a load to it.
The barbell press is amazing.
It’s a very powerful, almost superhuman-like feel to pressing a loaded barbell overhead.
Learn how to perform this safely and then watch your upper body strength and conditioning go to the next level.
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